Last week, an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education spread like wildfire through Facebook News Feeds. That doesn’t happen very often.

The article, a commentary by Kevin Carey entitled “Welcome, Freshmen. You Don’t Deserve to Be Here,” begins at Stanford University’s freshman convocation. We can sense that the freshman are nervous about matriculating to such a mythical institution. Maybe, after meeting their brilliant, fellow freshmen, they are wondering whether they have what it takes or whether the admissions office improperly evaluated them. So the dean stands before the freshman and attempts to comfort them with these words: “”We have made no mistakes about your admission. . . . You all deserve to be here!”


Mr. Carey takes issue with the dean’s words (as do I). He imagines an alternative speech by the dean, one that begins like this:

I know this is an important day for all of you. You have spent years of your lives trying to get here. Driving into Stanford this morning must have seemed like living a long-imagined dream.

And yet, I know many of you are nagged by something. Here you are, at a moment of unambiguous success and promise, sitting in a campus that looks like an American Versailles, the very best place you could possibly be. But you can’t quite let yourself enjoy it, not entirely, because part of you is wondering, “Do I really deserve to be here?”

Well, as dean of admissions, no one is more qualified to answer that question than I am. Let me tell you, definitively, so there is no confusion among us.

You do not deserve to be here.

Yes! Yes! Yes! That’s a great start. Unfortunately, Mr. Carey then veers into less desirable territory:

You do not deserve to be here. Not yet.

“Deserve” is a heavy word, freighted with a shared sense of obligation. It can be understood only in a context of ethics. It denotes merit earned from service—that’s where the “serve” part comes from.

That means service to others.

Mr. Carey goes on to describe the temptations available to the educated elite and the tools that Stanford offers to resist them. He closes with an exhortation to the gathered freshmen to make something of themselves, so they can deserve to be at Stanford:

So I say to you, on this brilliant day, in this lovely place, that while you do not deserve to be here, you could, someday. And I hope that if Stanford accomplishes only one thing on your behalf over the next four years, it will be some small assistance in really understanding what that means.

It won’t be easy, and some of you won’t make it. But I believe—I have to believe—that some of you will.

When you deserve it, come back to us. Share your service with your peers and your children. Then you’ll be part of our family. Then you’ll truly belong.

These are wonderful thoughts. But I tried to imagine myself in the place of a Stanford freshman. To get into Stanford, I would have to have good grades and good test scores. But I would also have to have an extensive resume of extra-curricular activities, including leadership positions, and to have shown proficiency in music or the arts and, probably, a sport of some kind. And to build this resume at the ripe young age of 17, I would have needed to have focused on these pursuits beginning at age 13. At least. More than likely, I would have been demonstrating my proficiency since my preschool interviews. And the focus of my pursuits, the carrot at the end of the stick, would have been admission to an elite college.

After grinding out my childhood on the college admissions treadmill, I have finally reached the promised land. And at the gates, I’m met with Mr. Carey’s message: It’s time to go to work.

How exhausting! Indeed, it would make me flee for the exits, by either dropping out of school, escaping into alcohol and drugs, or earning as much money as I can as fast as I can so I can retire.

The better message: You don’t deserve to be here. You don’t deserve to be anywhere. But you don’t have to earn anything. Everything you need has already been given to you. You have already been accepted, and your tuition is completely free.